My Itchy Travel Feet featured writer, Debi Lander of ByLanderSea, recently visited The Magic City. She writes about her top things to do in Birmingham.
During the 1960s, we flower children remember Birmingham for its role in the Civil Rights Movement. The city indeed recalls its past in some not-to-be-missed museums and trails but also offers an extraordinary culinary scene, public art and gardens, and a fun mammoth statue of the city icon, Vulcan.
I was astounded to learn that Birmingham was founded after the Civil War. The abundance of limestone, coal and iron ore provided jobs and made steel manufacturing possible. No river access, but rail lines went through the area.
These industries attracted so many workers that the population grew quickly. Indeed, so fast that the nickname, the Magic City, arose as Birmingham appeared on the map almost overnight.
Tour Vulcan Park and Museum
One of the fun spots in the city, at least for me, was Vulcan Park and Museum (website here). Birmingham wanted to make its presence known at the 1904 World’s Fair, so they commissioned sculptor Giuseppe Moretti to create the world’s largest cast-iron statue.
Vulcan, the mythological Roman god of fire and forge, was chosen. He’s enormous; his foot is taller than a man. Vulcan was such a hit, despite the fact that his arm was installed backwards, the city kept him. The burly, bearded statue now overlooks downtown.
Tour Vulcan Park Museum to learn about Birmingham’s and the statue’s history. You can also ride an elevator to the top of the monument for a marvelous panoramic city view.
However, the only picture of the 56-feet tall casting you can see from on high happens to be his rearview. I rather enjoy it.
I suggest you time your visit to the Vulcan Center to coincide with sunset. It’s mesmerizing to watch all the lights flicker across the industrial city.
Eat at the South’s Dining Table
Birmingham has earned the title “Dining Table of the South” for a good reason. James Beard Award Winners and nominees pop up everywhere, whipping up sensational creations that taste beyond wonderful.
Hot and Hot Fish Club
Chef Chris Hastings, a most hospitable man and owner of the Hot and Hot Fish Club, creates innovative dishes such as the Fish in a Fish in a Fish. Trust me- try it.
The restaurant offers indoor and outdoor dining areas that feature antique bricks and soft lights. You know the food will be extraordinary as Hastings received the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef in the South in 2016.
Godfather of Southern Cuisine
I had the opportunity to meet Frank Stitt, hometown hero known as the iconic” Godfather of Southern Cuisine,” He said he owes his success due to his connections with the farmers and their produce.
Stitt appeared as a caring, dedicated, and soft-spoken chef. He and his wife own and manage four top city restaurants, including the Highlands Bar and Grill, known for its exceptional service. Stitt employs James Beard award-winning pastry chef, Dolester Miles, who makes the super scrumptious coconut cake at Bottega Café.
Another vivacious foodie, Becky Satterfield, makes magic happen at Satterfield’s Restaurant. Becky also owns a Mexican restaurant named El ZunZun, Spanish for a hummingbird. I did not eat there but heard from others that the menu is outstanding. Pick any of these dining establishments for dinner, and you won’t be disappointed.
Birmingham experienced an influx of Greek residents over the years, and many families started breakfast and lunch eateries. Yes, you should consider Demetri’s (famous barbecue) for breakfast.
You can order BBQ off the morning menu, but I preferred the feta and tomato-filled Greek omelet.
I met owner Sam Nakos who shared the 60-year history of Demetris. He pointed out the historical photos on the walls and menus from the 60s. The prices were unreal.
Head over to Homewood for lunch, and try popular Johnny’s Restaurant. Johnny’s is beloved for its Greek-inspired brunch/lunch menu run by Chef Tim Hontzas.
He and the restaurant have won many James Beard awards. Be forewarned: the portions of Southern-style cuisine are enormous.
While you’re in Homewood, check out the fantastic antiques store across from Johnny’s. Their beautiful displays are worth a browse.
Redmont Vodka and Vulcan Gin
I also learned about Redmont Vodka and Vulcan Gin, from Birmingham’s first legal distillery. It’s owned by Alabama native basketball legend Charles Barkley.
Discover history at Birmingham Civil Rights District
In one of his final acts as President, Barack Obama signed a proclamation naming the Birmingham Civil Rights District a national monument and managed as part of the US National Park Service.
I had the opportunity to take a driving tour with Barry McNealy from Birmingham’s Civil Rights Institute. His eye-opening presentation described how corrupt politicians and the Ku Klux Klan yielded their power to keep Birmingham segregated.
Martin Luther King Jr. was a frequent Birmingham visitor. On one occasion, he landed in solitary confinement.
For a time, the city was known as Bombingham because 55 bombings occurred between 1949 and 1965. We drove through one neighborhood formerly called Dynamite Hill.
16th Street Baptist Church
Birmingham’s past includes tragic civil rights conflicts, including the headline-grabbing 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four young African American girls in 1963. The church is considered one of America’s freedom shrines and has been nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I toured the building, studied the timeline, and watched the documentary film in the church basement. A clock in the room is stopped at 10:22 when the bomb exploded.
Knowledgeable guides are on hand to answer questions. The tour ends in the sanctuary with some poignant stained-glass windows. `
Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
You’ll find the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (official website) directly across the street, a must-see modern museum. The facility, one of America’s most powerful museums, houses state-of-the-art interactive displays, archives, and videos, so plan on spending a few hours.
Kelly Ingram Park
Kelly Ingram Park fronts both sites, the former staging area for non-violent demonstrations where participants were besieged by police dogs and powerful fire hoses that could rip the bark off of trees. Today, you’ll find poignant statues within the four-acre park. Pick up a guide for the Cell Phone Tour and take some time here to contemplate those difficult days.
I also visited Rickwood Field, the oldest surviving ballpark in the U.S. The former home of the Birmingham Barons and the Birmingham Black Barons stands as a place where all fans came together.
Baseball greats such as Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Jackie Robinson, and Sachel Paige played there. In 1948, Birmingham rookie Willie Mays led his team to the Negro American League Championship. Some of the baseball memorabilia rests in the Vulcan Center Museum.
Enjoy Birmingham Botanical Gardens
For a calm respite, head to the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. Roam the artfully groomed 67-acres, free to the public. It’s an ideal place to bring children and let them run. The grounds include 30 thematic gardens interspersed with statues.
The Japanese Garden, a highlight, contains a traditional tea house, waterfall, bamboo groves, Japanese maples, colorful koi, and a bonsai house. The seasonal changes make return trips to this tranquil setting worthwhile.
Explore The Market at Pepper Place
On Saturday morning, I took in the busy Farmers Market (website) located in the Pepper Place Entertainment District. Besides fruits and vegetables, you’ll find lots of homemade goodies and gifts.
Do not miss Hinkel’s Artisan Bread and Pastries. I believe I bought the best almond croissant of my life from them.
Where to stay in Birmingham
Birmingham offers many chain hotels in the downtown and suburban areas, but my choice was the historic Tutweiler Hotel, a half-mile from the Civil Rights District. Originally built on the corner of 20th Street and 5th Avenue North, the hotel is now run as part of the Hampton Inn and Suites.
The Tutwiler was known for hosting such high-profile events as Tallulah Bankhead’s post-wedding bash and a press conference for Charles Lindbergh. In 1974, the hotel was imploded and replaced by the First Alabama Bank, causing a 12-year absence of its presence. The hotel reopened for business in 1986, taking over the Ridgely Apartments a few blocks over on Park Place.
In 2005, The Tutwiler underwent a complete renovation by a new owner but retained much of its marble. I found spacious guest rooms, a fitness room on the top floor, and a business center. The Century Restaurant and bar in the hotel offers a menu of locally-sourced Southern flavors.
While Birmingham is a tough city to visit in some ways, it also brought many surprises. It’s an alive place, forging forward (perhaps Vulcan is behind that.) if you haven’t been, put it on your list.